Newest GPL draft leaves Novell in the clear

Final draft of GPL 3 doesn't block the Novell-Microsoft patent pact that has raised open-source hackles.

The Free Software Foundation released the final draft of an updated General Public License on Thursday, a draft that prohibits future deals similar to the Microsoft-Novell patent pact but lets that one go ahead.

The Novell-Microsoft deal, in which Microsoft agreed to sell coupons for Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server and not to sue buyers for patent infringement, raised the foundation's ire when the companies announced it in November 2006. The previous GPL 3 draft had banned distributing software covered by such deals, but the foundation hadn't decided whether the document should apply to all of them of just future ones.

The final, "last-call" GPL 3 draft bans only future deals for what it described as "tactical" reasons in a 32-page explanation of changes (click for PDF). That means Novell doesn't have to worry about distributing software in SLES that's governed by the GPL 3.

"We believe we can do more to protect the community by allowing Novell to use software under GPL version 3 than by forbidding it to do so," the foundation said. Because Microsoft is distributing the coupons, once SLES includes GPL 3 software, the license will convey patent protections to anyone who receive the software, even if not via the Microsoft coupons, the foundation said.

As justification, the foundation referred to patent-specific language in the latest GPL 3 draft: "If, pursuant to or in connection with a single transaction or arrangement, you convey, or propagate by procuring conveyance of, a covered work, and grant a patent license to some of the parties receiving the covered work authorizing them to use, propagate, modify or convey a specific copy of the covered work, then the patent license you grant is automatically extended to all recipients of the covered work and works based on it."

The GPL is the most widely used license in the free and open-source software realm, governing such projects as the Linux kernel, the Samba file server software and the MySQL database. The final version of GPL 3 is due by June 28.

Drafting the new license has been a fractious process, but Eben Moglen, the Columbia University law school professor who has led much of the effort, believes consensus is forming. That agreement is particularly important in the open-source realm, where differing license requirements can erect barriers between different open-source projects.

As expected, the latest GPL 3 draft also restores an earlier goal, compatibility with the Apache License. That could help to lower one such open-source barrier.

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